Delays keep accused cops on the job for years

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A Channel 2 Action News investigation found Georgia officers still on the job years after serious disciplinary action.

Other departments are able to hire the embattled officers because of lengthy lag times in closing out the cases. Channel 2 investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer exposed how the system allows it to happen.

Georgia's Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, or POST, is the agency that investigates and then issues disciplinary action against police officers. The system allows officers to appeal and keep working while their cases are pending. Channel 2's investigation found it can be anywhere from one to 15 years while those cases sit at the Attorney General's Office with justice delayed.

In 2008, after a Channel 2 Action News investigation caught Morrow's police chief falsifying records, he appealed POST’s decision to revoke his certification and continued working for three years until he got in more trouble and POST revoked him again.

"I saw that there's a hearing process, and that's what I'm going to do," Jeff Baker, Morrow's former police chief told Fleischer at the time of his appeal.

"It's in their best interest, because they're getting paid to keep that case from going forward. Does that slow things down? Absolutely," said Ken Vance, director of Georgia POST Council.

Fleischer filed an open records request to see just how slow the delays can be. POST lists 160 open cases pending attorney general recommendations. The average case sits for nearly five years, and the longest was for 15.

"I think we are all doing the very best we can. Do some cases fall through the cracks? Absolutely," said Vance.

Riverdale Police Capt. Carl Freeman was already on probation when he was arrested on charges he urinated in a fun park pond and yelled at the owner. After POST revoked him, the Clayton County solicitor hired him as an investigator.

"What I think about it really doesn't matter. It's the process. People have those rights, and we've got to be fair on both sides," said Vance.

In the meantime, that officer may be investigating new cases.

"You may have to dismiss allegations. You may have to give a defendant a better deal. If there is a bad cop that is working, that is a problem," said former prosecutor Bill Thomas.

He told Fleischer an officer working while under suspicion could ruin a case.

Vance told Fleischer departments need to check records and not hire troubled officers.
The city of Lithonia named Washington Varnum as the police chief, even after the DeKalb Fire Marshall fired him and POST revoked his certification. Varnum lost his appeal two years later.

"It's that officer’s certification, but it's that agency's liability once they hire that person," said Vance.

Fleischer found more than half of all Lithonia officers are currently under POST investigation or have prior investigations or disciplinary action.

"I think you have to balance the rights of the officer and the needs of the department and the needs of the criminal justice system," said Thomas.

Some officers do stop working. In 2004, the governor suspended Fulton County Sheriff Jackie Barrett while federal authorities investigated her role in an investment scheme. POST revoked her in 2008, but her appeal dragged on until this summer. Barrett is still certified.

In 2010, POST started negotiating directly with officers to close more cases without the Attorney General.

"We looked at the process and said, 'This isn't working. Let's find something that works,' and we have," said Vance.

Vance said high turnover and low staffing kept the backlog lingering. Of the 2,030 cases POST now lists as closed, the average case length took a little over a year.

"Are there bad police officers working in Georgia that ought not to be? Yes. Will there always be? Yes," said Vance.

All of the officers Fleischer looked at were working within what the system allowed.

The attorney general declined Fleischer's request for an interview about the caseload but in a statement, a spokeswoman said:

“In January of 2011, the appeals process for POST cases was overhauled to prevent future backlogs and make the system more efficient. Prior to that change, a backlog of cases had built up over time due to historical resource limitations, a convoluted review process, and external factors, such as pauses in the POST process to avoid prejudicing pending criminal investigations and prosecutions. The new system instituted in 2011 streamlines the review process and maximizes staff resources to effectively address cases moving forward. The Attorney General’s Office is also currently in the process of working through the backlog that was in place before the overhaul.
 
In dealing with POST cases, public safety is a priority, and cases are triaged to ensure that serious cases which could have public safety implications are addressed first. Law enforcement agencies also have an obligation to check an officer’s POST certification before hiring that officer; that check would reveal any pending POST charges.”



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